Automobile Magazine's review of the new 2000 BMW 328Ci coupe succinctly summed up the car's virtues: "Flawless engine. Flawless handling. Flawless design. Basically flawless."

With really only one caveat, we'd have to agree. But that caveat is a killer. Our test vehicle listed for $39,610, which puts it beyond the reach of all but the thinnest slice of the population. Unless, of course, you've been investing in Internet stocks.

He: OK, you got the Beetle of your dreams last fall. This year, it was supposed to be my turn. But with two kids in college, I guess I can forget about buying a 3-series coupe for a while, huh?

She: With two kids in college, you may have to settle for a PT Cruiser, dear.

He: No fair. I can't say that I ever really lust for an automobile, and certainly nothing of recent vintage. But the 328Ci comes so close to being just about the perfect car, it's hard to resist.

She: I'm still put off by the sticker price on our test car. Who's got $40,000 to spend, especially on a vehicle with limited practical value? You could buy a minivan or a small sport-utility vehicle for that kind of money, and still have enough left over for a Beetle.

He: Let's be fair. The basic 3-series coupe comes with a lovely twin-cam 2.5-liter six-cylinder engine that makes 170 horsepower and starts at $29,000.

She: Is that your final answer?

He: Don't hand me that Regis Philbin stuff.

She: Look, I gave the car four stars, even if it is on the pricey side. By the way, for those of you who read this column every week to check on our marital status, it must seem like the auto companies are working hard to improve the Lienerts' relationship. Isn't this the second week in a row where we've basically agreed on things?

He: You're right. It's a dangerous precedent. But let's talk some more about performance. And those great 16-inch alloy wheels. And that speed-sensitive variable-assist steering. Not to mention the four-wheel disc brakes and that terrific five-speed manual gearbox.

She: To tell you the truth, I'm more impressed by the safety features on the BMW. The 328Ci comes with standard front and side air bags for the front passengers, and optional side bags for the rear, plus a head protection system. You also get standard antilock brakes, traction control and stability control, so even in rainy or icy weather, you should feel pretty secure. I suppose you could also make a good case for value, considering the 3-series comes with one of the best warranty packages in the business. You're covered for four years or 50,000 miles, plus you get three years of free maintenance and a four-year/50,000-mile roadside assistance plan. That adds up.

He: You can't drive a roadside assistance plan. But you can appreciate this car's superb sport suspension system - struts in front and a multi-link rear, with gas-pressure shocks to smooth the ride and stabilizer bars at either end to keep th e 328 absolutely flat and perfectly poised when you're wringing it out in your favorite set of curves.

She: Wringing it out on your favorite set of curves? No wonder automakers can get away with $40,000 price tags with guys like you out there, with your adolescent fantasies. The only wringing out I've ever done is with hand-washables. I'm sure half of our audience would agree with me.

He: What the heck's a hand washable? Actually, I don't think I want to know. But did we talk about that lovely twin-cam 2.8-liter straight six? It delivers 193 horsepower and is so responsive, it almost makes you want to cry.

She: Wait until you get the next tuition bill. Then you'll really want to cry. You may also want to take another spin in the 328, and enjoy the leather upholstery, the fancy myrtle wood trim and all those gadgets. I especially liked the rain-sensing windshield wipers. But why doesn't a car that costs this much come with a standard CD player?

He: OK, for a lion dollars, why doesn't it come with a CD player?

She: Don't toy with me, buster.

He: Is that your final answer?

2000 BMW 328Ci coupe

Anita's rating: world class

Paul's rating: world class

Likes: Handsome, tasteful, almost subdued styling. Exceptional handling capability. Great safety features. Outstanding warranty, free maintenance and roadside assistance plans.

Dislikes: No standard CD player on a $34,000 sports car? Nearly $6,000 worth of options nudges the bottom line too close to $40K.

Type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four-passenger sport coupe.

Price: Base, $33,990; as tested, $39,610 (inc. $570 destination charge).

Engine: 2.8-liter I-6; 193-hp; 206 lb-ft torque.

EPA fuel economy: 21 mpg city/29 mpg highway.

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $1,689 (*Estimate. Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.)

Where built: Regensburg, Germany